New Virginia Rules Target Cul-de-Sacs

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Virginia is taking aim at one of the most enduring symbols of suburbia: the cul-de-sac.

The state has decided that all new subdivisions must have through streets linking them with neighboring subdivisions, schools and shopping areas. State officials say the new regulations will improve safety and accessibility and save money: No more single entrances and exits onto clogged secondary roads. Quicker responses by emergency vehicles. Lower road maintenance costs for governments.

Although cul-de-sacs will remain part of the suburban landscape for years to come, the Virginia regulations attack what the cul-de-sac has come to represent: quasi-private standalone developments around the country that are missing only a fence and a sign that says "Keep Out."

Homeowners choose cul-de-sacs because, they say, they offer safety, security and a sense of community.

"Cul-de-sacs are the safest places in America to live," said Mike Toalson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Virginia, which opposes the new rules. "The first lots sold are often on the cul-de-sacs because they are safe." As for developments with single entrances and exits, Toalson said, such configurations ensure that all traffic is local, neighbors watch out for each other and speeds are kept down. "Crooks look for multiple exits."

Prince William County residents Brian and Donna Goff chose to raise their children in a cul-de-sac life. They live on Vixen Court, one of seven cul-de-sacs in Bridlewood Manor, a subdivision in Bristow. "You've got a family atmosphere. It stays quiet here," said Brian Goff, 42. The couple, who have two young children, have lived in the cul-de-sac for nine years.

The changes come as cash-strapped states and localities can no longer afford the inexorable widening of secondary roads that are overburdened with traffic from the subdivisions, strip malls, schools and office buildings that feed into them. The system forces drivers to enter these traffic-choked roads to go even 50 yards or so to the neighborhood coffeehouse or elementary school. North Carolina and Portland, Ore., are moving on similar fronts.

"When you have 350 to 400 miles a year of new roads you have to maintain forever, it's a budgetary problem," said Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who pushed the new regulations through the Commonwealth Transportation Board last month. Virginia has had to cut more than $2.2 billion from its six-year transportation spending plan. "But it's not just about the money. It's about connecting land-use and transportation planning and restricting wasteful and unplanned development."

To buy a gallon of milk, the Goffs have to drive onto Linton Hall Road, one of the busiest streets in the region, and go a mile to Safeway. Goff said that it would be easier if there were back roads that connected to the Safeway but that it wouldn't be worth the increase in through traffic.

"There are kids in all these subdivisions. You put more traffic in subdivisions, it's a recipe for disaster," he said.

Suffolk City Council member E. Dana Dickens, who is on the state panel that approved the changes, said cul-de-sac dwellers like the privacy and "fear traffic and all those types of things. But those are often the same people who also complain about paying for building capacity on the collector road if you don't have the connectivity."

Early 20th-century development was generally in a grid format, which spread traffic out. It also made for walkable, transit-oriented communities. Some jurisdictions, such as Arlington County, have made special efforts to link new developments to the older connected traffic grid.

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